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"Memoirs of a Geisha"

Directed by Rob Marshall.
Written by Robin Swicord.  Based on the novel by Arthur Golden.
Starring Ziyi Zhang, Michelle Yeoh, Ken Watanabe and Gong Li.
Release Year:  2005
Review Date:  12/19/05


Yep, it's true--I actually DID read this book before seeing the movie in theaters, and what a difference it makes to know what the hell is going to happen before the flick even starts!  You would think I would read more often, and since I read four books this year (my highest total since fourth year at Virginia) I have great hopes for 2006.  (JY bought me five books for Christmas this year, and along with a couple of books being made into summer films for next year, I might be reading all winter!)

Memoirs of a Geisha was a fantastic novel, one that is made all the more shocking because its detailed description of geisha life in 1930s Japan was written by a freakin' white guy.  Yes, he did interview at least one real geisha in-depth in researching his material, but the real treasure is how this writer, Arthur Golden, seems to speak from the female point of view almost as well as any woman might.  Fast forward to the flick, which follows our protagonist, Chiyo (played at first by Suzuka Ohgo), as she moves from innocent 9-year-old child to unwilling slave laborer to apprentice geisha to 100% geisha.  Along the way, we get to see how tough it must be for a woman to play the role of walking art piece, part-time fruit bearer (ahem), song-and-dance performer and owner of some REALLY uncomfortable footwear.  What's tougher is the constant one-up-manship of geisha life as well as the sheer lack of an opportunity to live out one's own dreams...and as she moves through adulthood (and magically transforms into Ziyi Zhang, from "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"), this becomes Chiyo's true struggle, most notably her love for a man known only as The Chairman (Ken Watanabe of "The Last Samurai").

I saw this over the weekend, and both Jennifer and I (we both read the book) agreed that the film is well done but--as with most book-to-flick translations--moves a bit too quickly in setting up the story.  In fact, I would think that people that didn't read the book might have some trouble understanding the film's initial sequences, as Chiyo is ripped from her home along with her sister to be sent off to in-house slavery in the local towns.  Director Rob Marshall ("Chicago") does a great job with the atmosphere, and does good work with his all-star cast; man, if you've seen a ton of Asian films, you will recognize damn near all of these people from something else, from Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (freakin' Shang Tsung from "Mortal Kombat"!!) to Kenneth Tsang (about a dozen Jackie Chan and Chow Yun-Fat flicks) to Gong Li (many flicks from the mid-90s, biggest in "Raise the Red Lantern").  The film feels authentic in many ways, although I think much of this film was shot in the U.S. according to an interview I read with Watanabe last week.  The other big thing--the language.

Part of me just feels like the film should have been shot in Japanese with English subtitles.  Can't quite put a finger on why, but it's weird having certain scenes featuring actors answering phones with "Hoy!  Hoy!!" and then going back to speaking in English with other Japanese people.  The language translation doesn't really suffer; the English of everyone involved here is excellent, as most of the actors have worked in English-language productions throughout their careers.  But, I don't know, I just felt a little ripped off by having this flick not be done in its native tongue, even IF the book is written by an American.

That aside, "Memoirs of a Geisha" is, like the book, a cool look at what it might be like to be a big-time sake-waving real life doll back in the day.  The movie brings to life nearly perfectly what I experienced with the book, and while certain trims had to be made, I don't remember any major sequence being left out by screenwriter Robin Swicord.  This one might sway a little towards chick flick but I think there's enough here to be fun for the fellas, too.  Hit it!

Rating:  $9.50 Show


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Bellview Rating System:

"Opening Weekend":  This is the highest rating a movie can receive.  Reserved for movies that exhibit the highest level of acting, plot, character development, setting...or Salma Hayek.  Not necessarily in that order. 

"$X.XX Show":  This price changes each year due to the inflation of movie prices; currently, it is the $9.50 Show.  While not technically perfect, this is a movie that will still entertain you at a very high level.  "Undercover Brother" falls into this category; it's no "Casablanca", but you'll have a great time watching.  The $9.50 Show won't win any Oscars, but you'll be quoting lines from the thing for ages (see "Office Space"). 

"Matinee":  An average movie that merits no more than a $6.50 viewing at your local theater.  Seeing it for less than $9.50 will make you feel a lot better about yourself.  A movie like "Blue Crush" fits this category; you leave the theater saying "That wasn't too, did you see that Lakers game last night?" 

"Rental":  This rating indicates a movie that you see in the previews and say to your friend, "I'll be sure to miss that one."  Mostly forgettable, you couldn't lose too much by going to Hollywood Video and paying $3 to watch it with your sig other, but you would only do that if the video store was out of copies of "Ronin."  If you can, see this movie for free.  This is what your TV Guide would give "one and a half stars." 

"Hard Vice":  This rating is the bottom of the barrel.  A movie that only six other human beings have witnessed, this is the worst movie I have ever seen.  A Shannon Tweed "thriller," it is so bad as to be funny during almost every one of its 84 minutes, and includes the worst ending ever put into a movie.  Marginally worse than "Cabin Boy", "The Avengers" or "Leonard, Part 6", this rating means that you should avoid this movie at all costs, or no costs, EVEN IF YOU CAN SEE IT FOR FREE!  (Warning:  strong profanity will be used in all reviews of "Hard Vice"-rated movies.)

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The "fine print":
All material by Justin Elliot Bell for SMR/Bellview/ except where noted
1999-2009 Justin Elliot Bell This site was last updated 01/08/09